London is a huge old and diverse city which hosts many hundreds of niches to entertain just about anyone. One interesting niche, which took my family well off the well-worn tourist circuit, was church history. Here are a few of our highlights:
1. William and Catherine Booth – Whitechapel, East London
London’s East End is where the Booths began the work of The Christian Mission in 1865 which later became the Salvation Army. East London in the 19th century was extremely overcrowded with poor and immigrant populations. It was against this background that the Booths reignited the social aspect of the gospel, noting the futility of preaching to those with empty stomachs. Whilst the neighbourhood has definitely changed in the last 150 years, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture those same streets teeming with London’s disadvantaged. We spent about half an hour following the Salvation Army’s ‘Whitechapel Walkabout’ which includes a map and facts about some historic points related to the Booths.
2. John Wesley – The Museum of Methodism and John Wesley’s House
This stop was one of my father’s favourites, and is definitely worth the time of anyone interested in the Methodist movement or Wesley’s life and ministry. The visit is free and the staff are extremely informative and welcoming. We started our visit inside the museum with a short film on Wesley’s life and then were guided on a tour of Wesley’s house, which holds some of Wesley’s original furniture and personal items. We finished with some time spent in Wesley’s Chapel (1778) and a picnic in the gardens.
Across the street from Wesley’s Chapel is a the Bunhill Fields cemetery where ‘Nonconformists’ or Christians who practised outside of the Church of England, were buried from the 17th -19th centuries. Notable burials there include William Blake, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, Susannah Wesley, and Isaac Watts.
4. John Newton -St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street
Finding London sites related to the famous abolitionist and hymn writer, John Newton, was slightly difficult, but we ended up visiting St. Mary’s, the church where Newton became rector in 1779 and officiated until his death. While we couldn’t find any displays or information to do with Newton, the building itself is an interesting Baroque style chapel from 1727.
5. Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey
Attending evensong at St. Paul’s and/or Westminster Abbey is definitely one of my top suggestions for any trip to London irrespective of a visitor’s religious leanings. These two historic buildings are central to the religious, royal and political history of England. To avoid admission charges (£14.00 to £18.00) and experience the Anglican High Church, we normally take visitors to the choral evensong services which are free.
A few tips for your visit. 1) Endeavor to arrive early since the best seats fill up very quickly especially during the summer. 2) While St. Paul’s has a bit more relaxed atmosphere, at Westminster you need to very plainly tell the doormen that you are intended to worship at the Evensong service or they will not let you enter. 3) Check the website on the day of your visit as sometimes the time of the services change.
Other great church history sites in London include the Westminster Cathedral, Charles Spurgeon’s Church, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Libraries. Of course, Oxford, with a variety of sites related to C.S. Lewis (walking tour here) and J.R.R. Tolkien, is also only an hour’s train journey away from London.